Amazon – between the environmental crisis and neo-extractivism

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By JOSÉ RAIMUNDO BARRETO TRINDADE*

On the one hand, environmentalism on the other hand, the urgency of a “new model”, on the other hand, the harshness of the balance of payments and the generation of foreign exchange impose the expansion of the old primary-export model

Just this month, a study carried out by a large team of scientists was published in the pages of the respectable magazine Nature, and the aforementioned study reinforces the diagnosis that the limits of resilience of the largest tropical forest on the planet are close to irremediable collapse.[I]

The objective of this text is to address the Amazon as a peripheral space of capital accumulation through spoliation in the context of contemporary Brazilian capitalism, establishing the character of the Amazon space as an important frontier for Brazilian agribusiness. Grain agribusiness (mainly soybeans and corn),[ii] constitutes the nucleus of Brazilian capitalist agriculture, understood as the establishment of agrarian relations of production in the format of planting, with a view to obtaining and maximizing profit through the production and sale of grains on the international market, quickly expanding into Amazonian lands.

This expansive process has as one of its main areas of occupation, not by chance, the Amazon. Three factors integrated into the logic of the current pattern of Brazilian economic reproduction explain why: the primary-export centrality and the high gains generated by the segment of the bourgeoisie linked to agribusiness; the extensive characteristics of this type of agrarian production, requiring an abundance of land and a climate regime of sun and water that are favorable soil and climate characteristics; and, finally, the Brazilian State's historic favoring of landowner concentration and the protection of their rentier interests.

As Francisco Costa (2022, p.7) observes, “the appropriation of new [Amazonian] lands was concentrated in Mato Grosso (41%) and Pará (36%), which together represent 77% of the total”, and in these two In the federation units, the expansion of agribusiness is observed, the logic of which is the extensive use of land and the growing concentration of land ownership, deepening the existing inequalities between commercial producers focused on the external market and peasant and family producers producing for subsistence and/ or local supply.

The reality of the Amazon permeates both the natural sphere, comprising the greatest biodiversity on the planet, and its complex socioeconomic formation. Another Francisco, known as Chico de Oliveira, in his tenacity observed, even in the 1990s, that the Amazon was the scene of permanent discoveries and reconquests by capital (OLIVEIRA, 1994). In this regard, it is worth remembering that, since the XNUMXth century, the Amazon region has experienced periodic cycles of extraction of its natural resources, effectively participating in the primitive accumulation of capital.

However, only in the context of the 20th century, infrastructural projects, combined with government tax incentives for agricultural production, laid the foundations for a great frontier of capitalist accumulation to be consolidated in the Amazon, with the difference that, this time, the integration took place more intensely, made possible by technological advances. due to high investment and more recently due to the double interaction between exports of primary goods and rent-seeking use of land.

At the current stage, accumulation occurs not only on the agrarian front, but also in the broader scope of the exploitation of its natural resources and its inhabitants. The Amazon constitutes a space for expansion of accumulation that integrates three basic factors of the dependent order of transfer of values ​​from the periphery to the capitalist center: land, as a basis for agrarian exploitation (agriculture); the subsoil, as a base for mineral exploration and water sources (rivers and lakes), as a base for energy exploration. These conditions add to the logic of accelerated urbanization that has been established with the migratory flows of the last fifty years, establishing a pattern of environmental destruction and social poverty.[iii]

In the most current dynamics, capital accumulation is characterized, among other activities, by cattle breeding, and the expansion of cattle heads was made possible by the felling of the forest, as seen previously, by the reduction in travel costs and the increase in productivity. With the increase in external demand for beef, and the increase in the profitability of livestock farming in the Amazon, pressure is growing for more areas for cattle breeding, causing the entry of new corporations in the region, as well as the reduction of forest areas and an increase of pasture or crop areas. In this sense, it is worth highlighting that an equally deleterious result is the deforestation associated with these expansions, the impact of which is significantly felt in regions of agricultural frontier expansion.

But, in addition to deforestation, other harmful elements arise, such as the specialization of the region's production matrix in primary-export activities, the commodification of elementary natural resources, the overexploitation of labor, and social conflicts over land ownership. These factors are relevant as they increasingly promote the exploitation of natural space and the workforce, as well as accentuating the movement towards the internationalization of natural resources. This form of Brazil's external insertion in the world market does not appear to be sustainable in the long term. The property rights that are established are strictly mercantile and the territorial logic imposed by the domination of financial capital over natural resources even calls into question the territorial sovereignty of the nation, as well as the conditions of social reproduction of its inhabitants and the working class.

Export data from the legal Amazon show the evolution of the region's agrarian and mineral extractive dynamics. Between 1997 and 2021, the participation of the agricultural sector in the export basket went from 14,3% in 1997 to 34,7% in 2021, while the participation of the mineral extractive industry moved from 23% to 41,8% of the total in the same period. On the other hand, the transformation sector had a significant decrease from 62,5% to 23,4% in the same period, representing an approximate decrease of 3,8% per year. This was more pronounced than the dynamics observed for the country as a whole, which showed a rate of decline in the participation of the manufacturing industry of 1,8% in the same period.

Analyzing the interior of the agricultural sector, in turn, it is possible to verify that agricultural production in the Legal Amazon is increasingly occupied by the production of commodities, such as soybeans, sugar cane, corn and palm oil, to the detriment of other crops of greater importance for feeding local inhabitants and supplying the domestic market, such as rice, cassava and beans. Analyzing five-yearly data from the Municipal Agricultural Survey from 1990 to 2020, it is possible to obtain evidence of this change in production.[iv]

At the beginning of the period, sugar cane, corn and soy represented, respectively, 2,3%, 22,3% and 25,4% of the total planted area in the Legal Amazon. In 2020, the values ​​were 6,7%, 29% and 53,2%, representing both an absolute and relative increase in the occupation of land for the production of commodities aimed at the foreign market, especially soybeans. This increase in relative participation is due to the external insertion of Brazil, as a supplier of commodities agriculture to the rest of the world, with a large presence of transnational corporations in this sector on Brazilian and Amazonian soil. This trend is accentuated with the liberalization of markets and deregulation of the sector, which followed the neoliberal trend of Brazilian governments in this decade, culminating in the penetration of international capital.

In turn, when analyzing the participation of crops aimed at the domestic market, what is seen is a very sharp decline in the same period. Rice cultivation, for example, which previously corresponded to 27,8% of the total planted area in the Legal Amazon in 1990, reduced to an incredible 1,9% in 2020, demonstrating how the expansion of large agro-industrial production affects crop production basic. The same occurred for beans, whose share decreased from 6,7% to 1,5%, and for cassava, which decreased from 10,8% to 2,2%.

The proportion of small properties has decreased more markedly in the Legal Amazon compared to the rest of Brazil, a reality that can be evidenced from the variable proportion of properties with less than 10 hectares compared to the total properties in the territory in question . In this debate, it is attested that the proportion of establishments with less than 10 hectares decreased from 66,5% of the total in 1970 to 36,9% in 2020 in the Legal Amazon, while for Brazil, the reduction was 51,2% to 50,1%.

At the same time, when analyzing the other extreme, of larger properties, it is also possible to notice that the Legal Amazon tends to increasingly concentrate land. While the proportion of establishments from 100 to 1000 hectares and above 1000 hectares remains stable for Brazil (between 8,4% and 0,9% respectively), there is a significant increase for the Legal Amazon. In this sense, in 1970, establishments of 100 to 1000 hectares were 8,8% of the total, rising to 14,7% of the total in 2017, while those of more than 1000 hectares rose from 0,9% to 2,3% of the total in the region.

Thus, the Amazon region presents elements that characterize accumulation through spoliation, such as the use and commodification of its natural resources on an entropic scale of gigantic degradation. Within the scope of the large occupation projects developed for the Amazon in the last seven decades, there has been a large influx of external capital into the region, materialized in agrarian, mining, hydroenergy projects and the expansion of the agrarian frontier, establishing the logic of conservative modernization so well characterized by Chico de Oliveira.

From everything that has been developed throughout the text, the complex issue involved is quite evident: if on the one hand the environmentalist discourse supports the need for a “new model”, on the other the harsh rawness of the balance of payments and the needs to generate foreign exchange national institutions impose the continuity and expansion of the old primary-export model and, in very acute terms, very little concern with the preservation of biomes or raising the quality of life of indigenous Amazonian populations.[vi]

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at UFPA. Author, among other books, of Critique of the political economy of public debt and the capitalist credit system: a Marxist approach (CRV).

References


B. M., Montoya, E., Sakschewski, B. et al. Critical transitions in the Amazon forest system. Nature 626, 555–564 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06970-0.

COSTA, F. de A. From land structure to the dynamics of deforestation: the formation of a land market in the Amazon (1970-2017). Economic Policy Note – MADE/USP, no. 19, 2022.

OLIVEIRA, F. de. The reconquest of the Amazon. In: D'INCAO, MA and SILVEIRA, I. M (orgs.). Amazon and modernization crisis. Belém: Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, , p. 85-95, 1994.

TRINDADE, JRB and OLIVEIRA, WP de. Primary-export productive specialization and environment in a recent period in the Amazon. In: New NAEA Notebooks, Vol. 14, N. 02, 2011. Accessed at: https://periodicos.ufpa.br/index.php/ncn/article/view/539.

TRINDADE, JRB and FERRAZ, LP Accumulation through spoliation and agricultural activity in the Brazilian Amazon. In: Revista da SEP, no. 67, accessed at: https://revistasep.org.br/index.php/SEP/article/view/1051.

Notes


[I] The study published in the journal Nature estimates that “by 2050, 10% to 47% of Amazonian forests will be exposed to stresses that could trigger unexpected ecosystem transitions and potentially exacerbate climate change.” The study is accessible at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06970-0. B. M., Montoya, E., Sakschewski, B. et al. Critical transitions in the Amazon forest system. Nature 626, 555–564 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06970-0

[ii] “The Gross Production Value (VBP) in 2022 of the main agricultural chains was: soybeans (R$ 385,2 billion), corn (R$ 165,5 billion), sugar cane (R$ 80 billion), coffee (R$57,5 billion) and cotton (R$50,1 billion)”. Check out: EMBRAPA (2023). Access at: https://www.embrapa.br/busca-de-noticias/-/noticia/78089493/artigo—a-cadeia-produtiva-de-hortalicas-e-o-valor-bruto-da-producao#:~:text=Brasil%20(CNA).-,Nesse%20cen%C3%A1rio%2C%20o%20VBP%20em%202022%20das%20principais%20cadeias%20agr%C3%ADcolas,%24%2050%2C1%20bilh%C3%B5es).

[iii] For a meticulous treatment of Amazonian neo-extractivism and its impacts, I suggest accessing Trindade and Oliveira (2011).

[iv] PAM (Municipal Agricultural Research) is accessible at: https://sidra.ibge.gov.br/pesquisa/pam/tabelas.

[v] The data are from the Agricultural Census (various years). Data available at: https://sidra.ibge.gov.br/acervo#/S/CA/A/Q

[vi] This text summarizes the most exciting work published in Revista da SEP (Trindade e Ferraz, 2023), accessible at: https://revistasep.org.br/index.php/SEP/article/view/1051.


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